The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death
“I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” Or so Colson Whitehead would have you believe. This line, the book’s first, in a way also serves as its thesis, outlining in a neat 15 syllables pretty much everything the author intends to tackle here: poker, and a dryly comic self-hatred bordering on self-pity.
Whitehead’s most recent book chronicles his 2011 odyssey to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. When Grantland asked him to cover the series, he refused --- until the sports and culture magazine offered to get him a seat in the tournament itself. Whitehead, an amateur player since college who has played weekly games with fellow writers since, tells his readers he simply couldn't refuse the hand he had drawn. He then spends the next 200 pages and more whining about it.
Whining eloquently, it must be said, but whining nonetheless.
"It is a testament to Whitehead’s sheer ability as a prose stylist, then, that this self-indulgent little book is still worth reading."
The narrative jumps from time to time and place to place, telling the reader of Whitehead’s woes --- his recently dissolved marriage, his frustrations in training for the tournament, his many sleepless nights and hours whiled away on buses to and from Atlantic City --- and his long and storied history with poker and Las Vegas. (Spoiler alert: it involves name-dropping his old college pal, director Darren Aranofsky.)
While some greater context of the poker world is offered, penciling in the massive changes in poker culture in the wake of Internet gambling and aptly describing the sad fates of those who fall into the spiral of addiction to the hope for just the right card, it’s never quite allowed to exist on its own; Whitehead’s own dour worldview is simply too pervasive, too heavy-handed. When he shows up to perform in the series, he wears a red sweatshirt emblazoned with white letters spelling out “Republic of Anhedonia.” This fantasy nation, from which Whitehead claims to descend, is named after a psychiatric term meaning “the inability to feel pleasure.” Ah, Colson, do writers suffer? Do people suffer? Do you?
It is hard to know, exactly, when the author is self-critical or self-aggrandizing, and when he is being utterly emotionally honest or hamming up his distress --- he simply works too hard linguistically to paint himself in a state of perpetual sardonic detachment from the regular realm of human intimacy and emotion. It is a testament to Whitehead’s sheer ability as a prose stylist, then, that this self-indulgent little book is still worth reading. Even the poker lingo sizzles in his crisp diction, his metaphorical specificity tailored to the plebes:
“Whoever has the better stuff wins. Sound familiar, American lackeys of late-stage capitalism? After highest card comes one pair. You have one Queen, but your opponent has two Queens. Who wins? Imagine the Queens are gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. DVD players for the kids, butt warmers, GPS voiced by Helen Mirren. Your family has one SUV, but Big Mitch next door has two of them. Who wins? Exactly. That’s the virtue of culturally appropriate mnemonics.”
“Employing their idiosyncratic gambling spider-sense, the hopefuls registered for stakes that possessed the aura of good fortune. I recognized that feeling I first got in roller rinks and at high school parties/shame cauldrons, where I’m going to dance but the song isn’t right.”
Whether half dead inside or no --- and it’s truly hard to imagine it, given the emotional weight of much of his fiction --- Whitehead’s prose is alive, vigorous and supple. If only the handling of his subject were equally so.
Perhaps Whitehead’s most obvious issue here is that he’s uncertain of his subject. Is it poker, or the author, or both, or neither? Less obvious, but potentially more damning, is that the reader leaves the book feeling uncertain as to who, exactly, the audience is as well. Will the literati wade through the lengthy passages on poker rules that jest ably yet do not elucidate? Will the poker nerds and men’s magazine readers tolerate the tone, which seems perfect for a long form Grantland article but less so for a book-length piece? It’s hard to say. One wonders if Whitehead even could himself.
Reviewed by John Maher on May 30, 2014